I think of my growing up as being “normal” … but, of course, I see now that my “normal” is not anyone else’s “normal”. To me it was normal because all my friends were growing up the same way. All of us had mothers that were there when we came home from school … except Wendy two doors down whose mother worked … what was it like coming home from school to an empty house? We were all two parent families … except Mrs. Brooks across the road who was raising two sons on her own … how would I feel if Dad didn’t come home every night? All our neighbours had two children … except the McFarlane’s who had eight … how did they all get along and where did they all sleep?
When people learn I grew up in Quebec they say, “Oh, you speak French?” But I tell them, alas, no, I grew up in an English enclave … at that time there was only the one French family in our entire neighbourhood. That was normal.
The four of us lived in a comfortable three bedroom bungalow – a wood fireplace in the living room where we sometimes popped popcorn; a finished basement where we could entertain our friends, and a separate dining room where we ate, even breakfast – we never ate in the kitchen. Although it was large enough, the space by the front window where the dinette would sit if we’d had one was always left empty. Dad doled out a weekly allowance: 25¢, raised to 50¢, and by the time I was a teenager I received $1.00. Summers were spent at a lake, somewhere, and Christmas vacations were spent skating – Mum helped me on with my skates lacing them tightly, and Debby and I hobbled to the rink by the club house. There we glided and twirled through figure eights for hours, fancying ourselves to be the next Barbara Ann Scott.
Aunts and uncles didn’t participate in my upbringing and I didn’t know my cousins well. We rarely had family gatherings, except at Christmas and then only with Mum’s side of the family – her parents, and two surviving brothers – Uncle Doug and his family, and Uncle Howard, a lifelong bachelor. I have nine cousins but we never got all together. Dad’s parents and brother lived in Hamilton, too far away. His two sisters lived in Montreal, but our only visits with them were during the Christmas season delivering presents for my cousins, engaging in some polite chat, and sipping a drink before departure. I guess that’s why Dad so often asked me as an adult if I had called my sister recently – encouraging us to keep in touch and stay friends. (Which worked, Dad – we imagine you looking down on us and being pleased with our closeness.)
The drive home from Granny Laird’s on Christmas night was magical. All the businesses along the Cote de Liesse decorated huge Christmas trees. As tired as I was after the festivities of Christmas day, I stayed awake to see them, my nose pressed to the car window in anticipation of the majestic trees lit with coloured lights twinkling like a rainbow of stars in the darkness. And then, on the other side of Cote de Liesse was an orphanage and on every passing I wondered about the lives of the children within its walls.
So, normal was a home with both parents together, a working Dad, a Mum who was always there but no extended family; my own room, and only one sibling, living in an English-speaking, upwardly mobile neighbourhood in suburbia, summers at the lake, a new car in the driveway every two years and never a serious want.